All through last summer we kept our fingers crossed that we’d be able to use our Sunshine Meadows shuttle tickets during wildflower season. But to our disappointment, the June flood damage was so extensive that the shuttle service didn’t run again in 2013. So as soon as online bookings opened for the 2014 hiking season, we signed on and reserved our seats for the 8 a.m. shuttle bus on a late July Tuesday morning – peak wildflower season.
The relatively flat network of Sunshine Meadows hiking trails offers big payback for minimal effort. The privately-operated shuttle bus does most of the work; the bumpy ride on the 5 km winding gravel road gains visitors just over 500 meters elevation which would otherwise take up to two hours of somewhat strenuous hiking. While the shuttle bus service makes alpine hiking accessible to those who might not otherwise be able to explore the area, it also means the trails here can be quite crowded. If you want to start your exploration of Sunshine Meadows in the morning, we strongly recommend you reserve your seats in advance. The odds of purchasing a walk-on ticket improve later in the day.
2019 UPDATE: As of this summer, there is no shuttle bus service from the Sunshine parking lot to the Sunshine Meadows trail head. Instead, there is daily gondola service via the Banff Sunshine ski hill infrastructure. The service runs from late June to early September each year. There’s no need to book tickets in advance, but if you do, you can get free shuttlebus service from Banff to Sunshine. For more details, visit Banff Sunshine.
Upon disembarking the shuttle bus at Sunshine Village, passengers head off in all directions, depending on their plans for the day. Backpackers generally head southeast to the Howard Douglas Lake campground or beyond; those aiming to complete the strenuous 29 km (one-way hike) to the Mt. Assiniboine area generally take the first bus of the day. Others head over Simpson Pass towards the backcountry campgrounds near Healy Pass.
Strong dayhikers have a couple of options, including the 18.6 km (return) hike to Citadel Pass or the 18.3 km Sunshine Meadows to Simpson Pass/Healy Pass loop. We opted to spend a fairly relaxed day with friends, hiking a 13.7 km loop along the Sunshine Meadows network of trails, including a couple of short side trips to scenic viewpoints.
Just as we did when we hiked Sunshine Meadows at the end of larch season in 2012, we headed northwest from the visitor centre towards the Monarch Viewpoint. From there, we took a short side trip up to the summit of Wawa Ridge to enjoy an unobstructed view of Mount Borgeau to the north and a panoramic view of The Monarch and Monarch Ramparts to the west. This 30 minute extension to the more boot trodden main trails added 30 minutes, 1.8 km (return) and 60 meters elevation gain to our outing. In addition to the fantastic views, scenic highlights included a single mule deer (at about 2400 meters) and a weather station.
Back down at the Monarch Viewpoint, we headed back towards Sunshine Village for about 200 meters and then turned right onto the Twin Cairns Meadow Park Trail. For 2.8 km we enjoyed an easy walk through alpine meadows carpeted with beautiful wildflowers. There are a few short boardwalk sections to minimize trail wear and tear in boggy areas and a couple of short wooden bridges across meandering creeklets.
Our group became rather spread out along the Twin Cairns Meadow Park Trail. Some were distracted by the wildflowers, one was in a hurry to reach the viewpoint and a couple of us were chatting back and forth on our walkie-talkies trying to confirm we were all on the “right” trail. We finally came back together as a group as we approached the turn-off to the Standish Viewpoint Trail.
The side trip to the Standish Viewpoint is well worth the minimal effort to gain 50 meters elevation over a distance of about 350 meters. We took a 30 minute lunch and photography break at the viewpoint.
After lunch we were ready to head down to the trail past the western shore of Rock Isle Lake and then along the 2.8 km loop that includes sections of the shorelines along Grizzly and Larix Lakes with a viewpoint overlooking the Simpson River Valley. This seemed to be the most popular destination for visitors on the day we were at Sunshine Meadows. We encountered well over a hundred other people, many of them clumped together and apparently under the direction of some sort of group leader. We took full advantage of a few quieter spots to take photographs.
Our penultimate stop was at the Rock Isle Viewpoint, which offers an unparalleled view of Rock Isle Lake.
We really picked up our walking pace for the 1.5 km it took to complete the big Sunshine Meadows loop and reach the day lodge, since we wanted to catch the 2:30 shuttle bus down to the parking lot. We made it with time to spare, but were glad we arrived a little early when it turned out there were so many people ready to leave that a couple of vans had to supplement the seating capacity of the bus.
Total hiking distance = 13.7 km
Total elevation gain = 516 meters (267 net)
Total hiking time = 5 hrs 30 min, including 2 hrs 30 min for lunch, enjoying the views and photography
Riding the shuttle bus to/from Sunshine Meadows is not quite heli-hiking, but it’s a way less expensive way to enjoy an alpine meadow walk without having to put a lot of time and energy into reaching the alpine meadows!! The shuttle bus starts operating towards the end of June and shuts down after Thanksgiving weekend (second Monday in October). Best viewing times for wildflowers will vary slightly each year, but are generally at the end of July/beginning of August. Shuttle bus rates are reduced after Labour Day weekend and a visit towards the end of September should provide good viewing of golden larch trees. If you’re not a skier or snowboarder, the half-day guided showshoe trips to Sunshine Meadows (Nov/Dec through early May) might be of interest.
Please leave a comment letting us know about your favourite spot along the Sunshine Meadows trail network. Or if you have a question about this hike, let us know and we’ll do our best to answer it.